Thar She Blows! New England Harnesses the Power Gusting Over the Atlantic

The U.S. offshore wind industry got spinning in 2016. Will 2017 keep it going?

Credit: Courtesy Deepwater Wind

“2016 was the best year yet!” said just about no one—except, perhaps, U.S. offshore wind developers. In December, the burgeoning industry saw its first turbines start spinning off the coast of Rhode Island.

It’s been a long time coming. Europe installed its first offshore wind plant (Denmark’s Vindeby) 25 years ago, and a decade later, the United States hatched a plan to develop one of its own in the waters off Cape Cod. After waiting in vain for Cape Wind for 15 years, New Englanders have finally gotten into the offshore wind game. The five 6-megawatt turbines at the Block Island Wind Farm can generate enough electricity to power 17,000 homes.

The rest of the year wasn’t too shabby for the fledgling industry, either, especially in the Northeast. In August, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed into law the biggest commitment any state has made yet to offshore wind, and in a National Offshore Wind Strategy document published in September, the U.S. Departments of Energy and Interior estimated the industry could become cost competitive in the Northeast within just 10 to 15 years. That could come far sooner in areas where electricity prices are high and building electricity projects and transmission lines on land is difficult. Such a place is Long Island, New York, where a contract for a 90-megawatt wind farm 30 miles off the coast of Montauk is awaiting approval. So far the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has awarded 11 commercial wind leases along the Atlantic coast. The most recent lease sale, held on December 15 for that Long Island project, garnered a record-breaking bid of nearly $42.5 million. In other words, Block Island is just the beginning.

“The offshore wind industry is poised to take off in the United States,” says Kit Kennedy, director of NRDC’s energy and transportation program.

Credit: Courtesy Deepwater Wind

Of course, the election of Donald Trump now calls into question all types of environmental progress, and renewable energy is no exception. The president-elect has discussed withdrawing from the Paris agreement, scrapping the Clean Power Plan, and unleashing “an energy revolution” centered on dirty fossil fuels that is, like, so 1916.

But even with the coal-black cloud settling over Capitol Hill, energy experts agree that offshore wind’s future still looks pretty bright. “The Trump administration and the new Congress present a question mark, but there are a lot of reasons to think that the momentum will continue,” Kennedy says.

For one, a number of New England’s fossil fuel and nuclear power plants are scheduled to retire. On top of that, the 2008 Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act requires the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. Newer legislation also requires utilities to source 1,600 megawatts from offshore turbines by 2027. (Mind you, just a single megawatt of offshore wind can power more than 400 homes and offset about 2,600 tons of carbon dioxide.)

When it comes to investing in new, clean sources of energy, Massachusetts is ripe for—yes—a windfall. The strong, consistent wind speeds on the Atlantic coincide with periods of peak demand along the Eastern Seaboard. And the massive untapped power resource blows and blusters in close proximity to energy-hungry population centers like Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.

Bill White, senior director for offshore wind at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), says the Bay State is leading the national charge toward offshore wind development because the energy source ticks all the boxes of “diversifying our energy, meeting climate goals, and creating jobs.”

According to MassCEC, the number of clean energy jobs in the Bay State has increased by 75 percent since 2010, surpassing 100,000 in 2016. With offshore wind in the mix, that number stands to rise. More than 300 local workers had a hand in building Rhode Island’s Block Island Wind Farm, which also created 50 permanent jobs in operations and maintenance. Nationwide, the Energy Department estimates the offshore wind industry could employ 160,000 by 2050.

Energy independence, infrastructure investment, and job creation may sound familiar as some of Trump’s favorite talking points. Building offshore wind farms requires the work of electricians, pile driver operators, welders, and ironworkers—exactly the kinds of manufacturing jobs that many Trump supporters are hoping he will revive. “I would find it ironic if the Trump administration were to not look favorably on this significant job opportunity for blue-collar workers,” White says.

Even so, the U.S. offshore wind industry isn’t entirely dependent on the whims of Trump, with states driving much of the energy demand. “Although the federal government plays a big role in accelerating progress or not, most energy policy takes place at the state level,” says Kennedy. In the first weeks of the new year, as if on cue, New York offered proof positive. In his annual State of the State address, Governor Andrew Cuomo committed to 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2030.

Economic incentives are one reason renewable energy cuts across party lines. (Oil-loving Texas, for instance, also leads the nation in installed onshore wind capacity.) A 2016 Gallup poll found that 73 percent of Americans surveyed want to prioritize alternative energy over oil and gas, including 51 percent of Republicans—up from 46 percent in 2011. “The economic and infrastructure benefits of renewable energy can be an appeal . . . even if the pollution-free aspects of it are of less interest,” Kennedy says.

With more efficient turbines and more projects in the works to drive down costs, the economic benefits of a robust offshore wind industry could be, well, yuge. White points to the recent lease sale in New York as evidence. The winning bid of $42.5 million came from Statoil, the world’s 11th-largest oil and gas company. “They didn’t make that play, as an oil and gas company, strictly out of altruism,” White says. “The headline is really: This is a multimillion dollar industry opportunity for the Northeast.”

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